Today's Game: Lee Smith

All this week we’re taking a closer look at the 10 people on the Today’s Game Era Ballot for the Hall of Fame.

Because I’m a crazy person, I sometimes like to think of a developing baseball stat as a performer with big dreams (!). “Someday,” she announces when she’s very young, like in the second grade, “I will leave this quaint midwestern town and get on the back of a baseball card just like batting average and earned run average and, be still my heart, RBI.”

Her friends laugh. “Sure,” they say, “you and Ribbie and At-Bat will just be eating corned beef sandwiches together at Sardi’s. Right! That'll be the day!” But the young stat does not listen, will not listen, for she burns too brightly with hope and promise and mathematical possibilities. And then one day she gets on that bus and goes to that big city to fulfill her destiny.

I see her there, overwhelmed by the height of the buildings and the speed of the traffic, and all she wants is a chance. She takes odd jobs as a waitress or a cell phone number, and then one day she gets to audition for a baseball card chorus line (“God, I hope I get it!”), and when she gets there, she see a hundred other promising stats, each performing with all they’ve got. (“How many numbers does he need?”) The choreographer is cruel, and he turns to Game-Winning RBI and says, “Why don’t you go back to Dubuque or wherever you came from?” and he makes Total Average cry with his viciousness, and he tells Hold, “You’ll never be anything but a silly H in the box score that nobody even notices!"

“You’ll see!” Hold yells back. “People will count me!”

“They might count you,” the choreographer says meanly. “But they’ll never care about you.” He then makes fun of BABIP’s name and tells all the linear weight stats that can just go home -- they’re too complicated to win over anybody’s heart.

Then it’s time. Our girl performs. The choreographer stops. The spotlight naturally follows her. Everything moves in slow motion. He knows. Everyone knows. A star has been born.

“What’s your name, honey?” he asks, because the choreographer is also kind of sexist in my made-up A Chorus Line scenario, but not REALLY sexist, you know -- he just has a rough exterior, though he definitely appreciates greatness.

“Um,” she says, because she's nervous, but then she looks into the crowd, the bright lights almost blinding her, and there's RBI, looking on, smiling.

She feels emboldened.

“Come on sweetheart, what’s your name?” the choreographer asks.

“Save,” she says.

* * *

This, I assume, is not how you expected the Lee Smith essay to go.*

*And if any of you start picking apart the timeline of my absurd story by pointing out that Save was invented before Hold and other stats in there, I’m disinheriting you.

Lee Smith has the best chance of any of the 10 men on this ballot to be elected to the Hall of Fame, and the reason is the save. It’s kind of fun to think about how a starter with a 71-92 record and 1,289 innings pitched could go to the Hall of Fame. I suppose if he had 20 no-hitters, or something like that, he might go. Maybe if he had 3,000 strikeouts in those 1,289 innings. (But how would he lose 92 games then? He must have TERRIBLE control.)

But the save — Lee Smith finished with 478 of them, and that was the big league record for 13 years, before it was broken by Trevor Hoffman. Not many people remember this, but for one year Jeff Reardon held the saves record. The saves record was first adopted in 1969, and six pitchers have held the record at some point — in parentheses I include the last record held by each pitcher:

Hoyt Wilhelm (228 saves): 1969-1980

Rollie Fingers (341 saves): 1980-1992

Jeff Reardon (357 saves): 1992-1993

Lee Smith (478 saves): 1993-2006

Trevor Hoffman (601 saves): 2006-2011

Mariano Rivera (652 saves) 2011-forever?

You can see the argument for Smith: If the save is a sacred part of baseball’s statistical canon — and history suggests that it is — then the guy who retired with the all-time saves record and held it for more than a decade, well, that’s a pretty strong Hall of Fame case, right?

And so, for our purposes here, I don’t want to write about Lee Smith himself — I’ve done that many times, like here— but about the save, and why we love it so much. How did the save make it through that chorus line of wannabe stats? How did it resonate so deeply that it changed the way managers manage, changed the way voters choose award winners, somewhat altered the whole pay structure of baseball?

I think it comes down to something obvious, really: A great stat tells a great story. It seems to me that as obvious as this is, it's the easiest thing in the world to miss. Many of us look at stats for their mathematical muscle, for their thoroughness, for their simplicity, for their originality, for their predictive value, for their insight. And all of that is important, particularly if you work in the game.

[caption id="attachment_23766" align="aligncenter" width="484"] Smith held the career saves record from 1993 until 2006.[/caption]

But for most of us — we want the stat to tell a story. Bill James once riffed about how just seeing a .284 batting average will give you an image of a player. This is still true: Think of a .284 hitter and I’m guessing — maybe this won’t be true for 100 percent of you, but it will be pretty close — that you'll have a hitter in mind, maybe a solid but unspectacular Melky Cabrera type, or a third baseman with power like Alex Bregman, or a speedy outfielder like Ender Inciarte, maybe someone all your own.

And here’s the thing: If I said .293 instead of .284, it’s likely that you’d have a completely different person in mind. That’s powerful storytelling, because the difference between .284 and .293 is ALMOST NOTHING -- it’s basically one hit a month.

The save has that kind of storytelling power. We can talk all we want about the flaws of the save — you might know, I’ve done that — but the idea behind the save is so powerful, and so compelling, that it endures. First of all, it has the perfect name: the save! Think of the potency of that word. Who saves? Jesus saves (and Esposito scores on the rebound). Superheroes save. Firefighters save. Goalies save. Doctors save. So to have a pitcher “save” a game, that’s the next best thing to winning it (and we all know how pitchers' wins have resonated with people through the years).

Second, there’s the image that the save evokes. A team has the lead, but the game is still very much in doubt. The team needs a hero, someone who can swoop in (perhaps to the thumping beats of Hell’s Bells or Enter Sandman) and save the game. OK, in reality this has evolved into a pitcher coming on in the ninth with a two- or three-run lead and nobody on base, but that powerful idea endures.

Take a quick look at how a few closers have done in the MVP balloting since 1980:

1981: Rollie Fingers wins AL MVP.

1982: Dan Quisenberry and Bruce Sutter top vote-getters among pitchers.

1983: Quiz and Al Holland top vote-getters among pitchers.

1984: Willie Hernandez wins AL MVP, Quiz is third.

1985: Donnie Moore top vote-getter among pitchers in AL.

1987: Jeff Reardon and Steve Bedrosian top vote-getters among pitchers.

1988: Dennis Eckersley top vote-getter among pitchers in AL.

1989: Eck and Mark Davis top vote-getters among pitchers.

1991: Lee Smith top vote-getter among pitchers in NL.

1992: Eck wins AL MVP.

1993: Rod Beck top vote-getter among pitchers in NL.

1995: Jose Mesa top vote-getter among pitchers in AL.

1997: Randy Myers top vote-getter among pitchers in AL.

1998: Trevor Hoffman top vote-getter among pitchers in NL.

2003: Keith Foulke and Eric Gagne top vote-getters among pitchers.

2005: Mariano Rivera top vote-getter among pitchers in AL.

2006: Hoffman top vote-getter among pitchers in NL.

2007: J.J. Putz top vote-getter among pitchers in AL.

2008: Francisco Rodriguez top vote-getter among pitchers in AL.

2009: Rivera top vote-getter among pitchers in AL.

2010: Rafael Soriano top vote-getter among pitchers in AL.

2012: Craig Kimbrel top vote-getter among pitchers in NL.

2016: Zach Britton top vote-getter among pitchers in AL.

I was only going to do this for a few years but I kept going and going because even I was surprised at how often closers topped the MVP balloting for pitchers. How can you argue that a pitcher who throws one-third the innings of a starting pitcher could be more valuable?

You don’t have to argue it: The story of the save is THAT good.

There’s yet another side-note to point out here, and I think it’s interesting: As you can see above, 28 closers since 1980 finished top in their league among pitchers in the MVP balloting. And yet only six of them won the Cy Young Award. That seems weird, right? How does the top vote-getter among pitchers for MVP not win the Cy Young over and over again?

I think it's one more sign of the storytelling force of the save. Very few people think that closers are BETTER than starters. Mariano Rivera never won the Cy Young, never really came close to winning the Cy Young. He did finish second one year -- the only year he got a first-place vote -- but he finished well behind Bartolo Colon, who had a pretty uninspiring year for a Cy winner. If Mariano Rivera wasn't going to win the Cy Young THAT year, he wasn't ever going to win it.

But lots of people think closers can be more VALUABLE. In 1991, Lee Smith was the top pitcher in the National League MVP balloting, way ahead of Tom Glavine. But Glavine won the Cy Young. In 1993, Rod Beck got more NL MVP votes than any other pitcher, but he didn't get a single Cy Young vote.

And so on.

Lee Smith is one of the key figures in making the save such a powerful stat in the game. He was this hulking force of nature who came into the game late, threw with everything he had, and secured the win nine times out of 10. Many people credit (or blame) Tony La Russa and Dennis Eckersley for the one-inning save, but it was invented for Lee Smith just as much.

I'm ambivalent about how many relievers should be the Hall of Fame. I'm ambivalent about the save as a beloved stat. I'm someone who would rather put in an overlooked starter with a career just a little short — a Bret Saberhagen or Dave Stieb or Johan Santana — than a closer.

But I’m also a fan of storytelling, and how can you tell the story of baseball over the last 40 years without the save? Even now, 20-plus years after he retired, only Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman have more saves than the big man from Jamestown, La. Lee Smith knew how to close things out. I never voted for Smith. But as I look over this ballot, I obviously want them to put somebody into the Hall. And Lee Smith is my guy. He’s the one I'm rooting for.